Confusion all around in Egypt today. Everywhere discussions rage on whether or not the military did a coup, if June 30 was a second revolution or a protraction of the 2011 revolution. What to do with the Muslim Brotherhood, let alone president Muhamed Morsi who is being kept hidden somewhere for over two weeks? My cab driver declared going to a pro-Morsi protest although he absolutely did not want the Muslim Brotherhood or Morsi to reassume power. Confusing.
However, the deep feelings of hatred that surface these days, are more cause for concern than the confusion. Many hate the Muslim Brotherhood and are willing to do anything to break the backbone of the organization. They’re convinced the MB are religious totalitarians. Others hate the military, the police and all things linked to the old regime as manifestation of all that went so very wrong in Egypt over the last decades. As for the MB, they hate everything that remotely smells like secularism. According to them, June 30 and all that preceded it, was one big conspiracy.
Actually, all are somewhat right in a certain way.
Who are the Muslim Brothers?
The MB was founded in 1928 by a young Egyptian teacher, Hassan Al Banna. It is no coincidence that Mustafa Kemal Attatürk had abolished the Caliphate just a few years earlier. Al Banna was convinced that Egyptians were westernizing too much and that they had to become real Muslims again. He wanted to achieve his goal by two means: resistance to the British occupation of Egypt, but above all through education of the Egyptians themselves. For all intents and purposes, Al Banna was a kind of a missionary. He travelled all over Egypt, persuading as many Egyptians a possible to join his underground resistance movement.
The MB combined religious education and social aid to the poorest. It made them immensely popular in no time. Egyptian and British authorities were less enthusiastic. They saw the MB as a subversive movement and quickly took action to suppress it. The Brothers were violent and murdered the Egyptian prime minister in the forties. A year later Hassan Al Banna himself was murdered.
The average Egyptian never really completely trusted the MB and this for three reasons. First, there is the ambiguity regarding their ultimate objective. Do they aim to restore the Caliphate? Do they aspire worldwide domination? Do they seek to transform Egypt into some sort of Saudi Arabia? The second reason is congruent with the first: it being a secret organization. As with free-masons, there’s no public list of members and nobody knows their exact numbers. And although they deny it, the MB is organized on an international level. The secrecy has a lot to do with persecution but also gives way to all kinds of conspiracy theories
The third reason for mistrust is the fact that the MB used a lot of violence. Their most infamous act was the assassination of president Anwar Sadat. Despite the fact they have since disavowed violence, many are convinced that the Brothers are behind terrorist organizations as Gamaa Al Islamiya or Al Qaida. Al Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden successor has a MB past. It is no coincidence that every Egyptian president was on a tense footing with the Brotherhood while simultaneously being forced to deal with them.
The 2011 revolution
When on January 25th the first mass protests filled Tahrir, MB executives declared that its members would not join. They choose evolution, not revolution. Nonetheless many young members joined the revolutionaries at Tahrir. On January 28th the MB realized that remaining on the side-lines was not an option and backed the revolution. That was important because if the organization is capable of one thing, it is raising huge crowds. That became apparent after Hosni Mubarak had fallen and the military leaders made some big errors. If Tahrir needed to be filled, the Brothers delivered. It have them an aura of good organizers that could speak for a large part of Egyptians.
After all, the MB had the aura of the revolution and of decades of resistance to the dictatorship. Muhamed Morsi was pretty used to be in jail and he and many other leader of the MB still were imprisoned on January 25. Besides, they enjoyed the image of being ‘good Muslims’ and therefore honest people, as opposed to the corrupt regime. A third advantage they held over other opposition forces: they had a plan, the so-called Ennahda.
The 2011 elections
Therefore, it was no surprise the MB won the November elections in a very convincing way, with nearly 50% of the votes. The other contenders were divided, badly organized and made quite some campaign mistakes. On the subway, someone explained very plainly why he voted MB. He said: “To marry I must buy an apartment. I can’t do that if I lose my job. The economy must reboot. The MB is our best guarantee for that.”
The enthusiasm in Egypt before, during and after the elections was enormous. People queued for hours to cast their true first vote. Politics and the meaning of the newly won liberty was discussed all over, the subway, the market, at the barber shop. After the elections huge numbers of Egyptians listened in on the sessions of parliament that were broadcasted live on radio. They did so in cabs, in the street, in tea houses. Every word was heard. That initiated the first downfall of the MB.
Every Egyptian heard how chaotic the parliamentary debates were. They heard elected MB and Salafis table the most insane propositions. There was the representative that proposed to make it legal to have sexual intercourse with a spouse up until six hours after she died. It infuriated the average Egyptian. They voted for the MB to improve the economy not to discuss Islam. Popular support for the MB sank rapidly.
The 2012 presidential elections
I was sitting down with a few young revolutionaries the day before the first round of presidential elections. One of them suddenly questioned: ‘What if the second round is between Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq?’ That off course would be every revolutionaries worst nightmare. But voting for Shafiq was out of the question. He was Mubarak’s last prime minister. If Shafiq were to become president, the revolution would have been in vain. To the astonishment of many Egyptians that nightmare choice became reality.
Although Morsi, and thus the MB, only got 25% in the first round, half the score of the parliamentary elections six months earlier, he got the most votes of any candidate. 75% didn’t vote MB, but that vote was divided. It was (and still is) the reality of the opposition: divided and lacking a common strategy. Yours truly suggested the revolutionary candidates endorsed Morsi in return for half the power and a veto right. It never came to an actual deal along those lines for lack of unity in the revolutionary camp.
Nonetheless Muhamed Morsi accepted the proposal, live in the most important TV show on air. He promised to be the guardian of the revolution, the president of all Egyptians and to share power with the liberal opposition. He further promised to appoint a Coptic vice-president and a woman. What were the options available for the revolutionary voter? Letting Shafiq win or reluctantly voting for Morsi, hoping the promises were not hollow words.
Morsi’s broken promises
I stood in the middle of Tahrir amidst a Muslim Brotherhood crowd when Muhamed Morsi was declared winner of the presidential elections and thus the first elected president in the history of Egypt. The relief among those present was indescribable. It felt as if 85 years of persecution fell of the Brothers shoulders. It was the week I published a piece stating Morsi had a choice between cooperating and disappearing. And that if MB failed to live up to their promises, Egyptians fear of them would quickly turn to hatred. That is exactly what happened the past year.
Still, Morsi was off to a good start. He deposed the hated military leader Tantawi and replaced him with the younger general Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. Tantawi was the face of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) that held all power in the days between Mubarak and Morsi. It was the same SCAF that deprived the president of power during the presidential election weekend by virtue of a hastily drawn up constitutional declaration. Having taken back that power in August Morsi was cheered on by many Egyptians. He had an approval rating of 80%.
Other promises proved harder to realize. In his campaign Morsi had promised to solve Cairo’s traffic problems in a hundred days. And clean up the city. Off course, a hundred days having come and gone, there was not one traffic jam or pile of rubbish less in one of the world’s most chaotic cities. His promise of a woman and a Copt vice president weren’t fulfilled either. Instead he did appoint a widely appreciated judge.
The beginning of the end: the mini-coup
None of these shortcomings were the reason the atmosphere in Egypt shifted all of a sudden. To everyone’s surprise in November 2012, Morsi –by way of his spokesman- issued a new constitutional declaration stripping constitutional court judges of all power. He appointed a new general prosecutor. He further declared that the drafting of the constitutions was to be concluded within the week and to be followed by a referendum in two weeks on a text written almost exclusively by Islamists.
Revolutionary and liberal Egypt was infuriated. Instead of implicating them in the political process, they got pushed aside together with the entire judicial power. Again masses took to the street, protesting “the MB coup”. The MB resorted to armed mobs to disperse the protesters. Some people got dragged into the presidential palace where they were beaten and tortured. Revolutionaries of the first hour declared Morsi to be the new Mubarak. The vice president resigned in protest, as did all independent presidential advisors.
The day after the so-called mini-coup I asked someone close to Morsi what was going on. He told me a incredible story. Morsi and the MB leadership were convinced of a major conspiracy orchestrated by opposition figures as Mohamed El Baradei, the media, judges, businessmen and elements of the old regime. Morsi and his brothers got entrenched in a bunker mentality of ‘us against everyone else’ they haven’t managed to let go since. It induced Morsi to commit mistake upon mistake. Dialogue had become impossible.
The tyranny of the majority
There were several attempts to restore dialogue. The first one was made by the new army commander, general Sisi during the protests against the mini-coup. Morsi refused Sisi’s invitation. Instead he organized his own dialogue between his advisors, the resigning vice-president and the opposition. By that time, the opposition had lost all faith. And it has to be said, the opposition was also divided to the extent that any strategy beyond boycotting seemed impossible.
But despite the divisions the opposition organized itself in the National Salvation Front, headed by Baradei. Once the interlocutors had become clear, the European Union endeavored a kind of compromise in order to share power between the MB and the opposition. Morsi should replace his prime minister and allow the opposition access to five cabinet positions. The electoral law should be adapted according to the remarks made by the Supremer Constitutional Court. The hated general prosecutor should be replaced. European diplomacy chief, Catherine Ashton herself came to Cairo to give this proposal a final push. All seemed to agree. But Morsi did not respond. The political leadership of the MB was divided…
Instead of trying to close the gap, a campaign was launched against leading political and media figures. Journalists were detained. Liberal politicians were accused of spying, of heresy, of conspiring. Even the very popular satirist Bassem Youssef was prosecuted and questioned. Morsi’s approval ratings fell from 80 to 30 percent in less than seven months. More and more people saw him as the president of the Muslim Brothers rather than the president of all Egyptians. Those that had voted for him felt cheated. In the presidential elections they had overcome their deep doubts and anxieties in the name of the revolution. Now they felt betrayed by Morsi.
The youth rises against Morsi
Atop of all the political mistakes, Egypt was doing ever worse economically. There were daily power an water cuts? Petrol shortages became a general nightmare, causing enormous traffic jams at every filling station. Living got a lot more expensive as Egypt’s pound fell. If it hadn’t been for financial aid from Qatar and Libya, Egypt would probably have gone bankrupt in January.
In April some youth had the idea of starting a petition demanding precipitated presidential elections. A big demonstration was planned for June 30th, the first anniversary of Morsi’s oath of office. To their own surprise the response to the petition was overwhelming. Pretty soon they had gathered 2 million signatures. The military realized: June 30 was going to be huge and dangerous. The hatred ran deep. The Army decided on contacting the founders of the Rebel movement (Tamarod) and offered to provide security on the condition of a peaceful demonstration.
Meanwhile the petition amassed an increasing and spectacular number of signatures (it is said that by the end there were 22 million), making everyone realize this would end in an enormous clash between those that saw Morsi as a new dictator (betraying all ideals of the revolution) and the MB (that insisted on respect for election outcome). The days leading up to June 30th already saw some skirmishes and casualties.
The role of the Egyptian Army
The army is highly respected in Egypt. Particularly because as all other institutions seem to fail, the military often appeared the only one that could get things done. Even as it holds a large chunk of the country’s economy (figures vary from 20 to 40 percent), it is considered the only factor to put the country’s interests first. During the 2011 revolution the army chose not to intervene, which meant choosing the side of the protesters in Tahrir. In the end, it was the military that deposed Mubarak.
Of course Morsi too saw June 30 approaching. But instead of searching for a solution, he was looking for ways to divert the people’s attention and to try to gather them behind him. All of a sudden there was the problem of the Nile dam in Ethiopia and the threat of war. The sentencing of NGO employees drew anger in Europe and the US. And suddenly, in front of a packed soccer stadium Morsi changed his Syria strategy and called for a jihad against Assad. At the same time Morsi refused to take tough measures to tackle the anarchy and violence in Sinai where several soldier were kidnapped.
Thus, in June the army saw the convergence of two phenomena. On the one hand a big clash between Morsi opposers and supporters with the potential to grow into a kind of civil war. On the other hand the army saw a president willing to risk national security for political reasons. And this even leaves out the economic consequences of all of this for a country already on the brink. General Sisi made multiple attempts to persuade Morsi to engage in dialogue with the opposition. Morsi not only refused to listen to him, the political office of the MB decided secretly to replace Sisi and a number of other generals. A similar fate was bestowed upon a bunch of ‘conspiring’ judges and journalists.
The finale: June 30 until July 3
The tension on the eve of June 30 was enormous. Everybody believed a massive and violent clash would ensue. Friends told me they were even prepared to die – or at least they were convinced that in the end that would be their fate. But when I went from Tahrir tot the presidential palace and back on June 30, I realized it was al over for Morsi. Never before had so many people taken the streets. Numbers varied from 15 to 33 million Egyptians. Whatever the correct figure, it was clear to all that this was far bigger than the 2011 revolution itself. The protests were too big to fail.
The question then was: what will the military do? Will it wait to intervene until the situation escalates completely into violence or will it try act preventively? General Sisi chose the latter. He gave Egyptian politicians (read: Morsi) 48 hours to come to a solution. Morsi rejected the ultimatum and gave a speech repeating allegations of conspiracies and foreign interference. The only ‘concession’ he made was the promise to hold parliamentary elections within six months.
The army intervened, backed by the liberal opposition, de Coptic pope and the head of Al Azhar, the most renowned institute of Sunni Islam. They advanced a transition plan that was verbatim the one the Rebel-movement had proposed two weeks earlier. I was in Tahrir square when it was announced Morsi had been removed for office and replaced by the presiding judge of the constitutional court. The mood was ecstatic. Millions of Egyptians partied, danced and sang in the streets all night.
Revolution or military coup?
Apart from MB themselves, few Egyptians consider the removal of Morsi a real military coup. Rather it is regarded as a second revolution with the military siding with the people, as was the case in the first revolution. Contrary to what it did in the first revolution in 2011, the army did not assume political control of the transition, but immediately presented a civil president and cabinet. However it is clear that the army continues to play an important role in Egypt, politically and economically, as it has for the past sixty years. Particularly in foreign policy it is and remains the military that sets out the boundaries.
The massacre committed by the military among protesting Muslim Brothers raises serious questions of accountability though. Can anyone hold the military accountable? Or does the army remain an untouchable state within the state? As was the case in Malaysia or Turkey, it will probably take considerable time for the Egyptian army to be reined in to its appropriate role.
The most important question however remains what will happen to the MB? Up until today, they refuse to accept Morsi’s removal as a fact and refuse to talk unless he is restored in his office. We will undoubtedly see more clashes in the weeks and months to come. Still overtures for talks – whether or not under the auspices of the EU – remain possible. In any case, for Egypt to make progress, it is necessary to find some sort of democratic modus vivendi. For this to happen, hate and mistrust will have to make way for something we learned to live with a long time ago in all democratic countries: compromise.